Sunday, December 31, 2017

We All Live in Nazareth

From the Catholic Liturgy for Holy Family sunday, December 31, 2017. Gospel: Luke 2:22-40. Theme: We All Live in Nazareth.

I’ve noticed that as the traditional 12 days of Christmas pass by, things are gradually starting to look and sound and smell rather ordinary again. The glamour and glitz of all the decorations on streets and in homes are being packed away. The holiday music is no longer being piped through the sound systems in the stores or at work. And except for the Epiphany, even our liturgy is starting to slowly wind down from Christmas to Ordinary Time.  Today’s Gospel is like that too. It starts out by telling us such awesome things about the Infant Jesus. All the miraculous interventions of that first Bethlehem Christmas seem to continue now in glorious temple of Jerusalem! Then it, too, winds down to the ordinary; to the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth.

And yet it is the simple uneventful conclusion of this Gospel that really strikes me to the heart most powerfully because it is where Jesus, Mary and Joseph begin to really touch my life. No heavenly angels proclaiming God’s praise to shepherds. No mystic magi following a miraculous star and brining precious treasures. No wise prophet or prophetess saying amazing things by divine inspiration.   Those things all belong to magical Bethlehem and to glorious Jerusalem.

But me, I am at home in Nazareth.  Nazareth stands for the ordinary everyday life.  Nazareth means living by faith not by miracles. Nazareth means going to work and earning a living; enjoying meals with family and socializing with friends. That’s where I live. That’s where we all live.  And most amazing of all that is where the Son of God lived for 90% of his life as a man. Nazareth is where we truly find Jesus our Savior as Emmanuel: God-with-us. God-among-us. God-as-one-of-us.  What does this say about ordinary life if God himself came down from Heaven to live it for 30 of his 33 years? What does it have to say about salvation? About living life so as to reach the Kingdom of Heaven? Because those are precisely the things Christmas is all about. I believe it says a whole lot about how we become holy, how we live the Gospel and become more like Jesus. 

Somewhere along the way we have gotten the idea that God is best loved and served by carrying out religious works. When someone decides to live their life for God, they think they have to go off to a convent or monastery, or perhaps travel to a Third World country in service to the destitute. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with those things if that is indeed what God asks of an individual. But for most of us, Nazareth shows us how wrong that way of thinking can be! Nazareth shows us that God is loved and served in the ordinary everyday realities of life, which we offer up to God in a spirit of praise and in union with the ordinary life lived by our beloved Brother and Lord.

I think it is very important for us to remember that by sharing in a life just like ours, Jesus as God-in-the-flesh made our everyday lives among those with whom we live, work and socialize a pathway to holiness. He made it the way in which we grow in faith, deepen our trust in God and show our love for Him in the way we treat others.

Bethlehem & Jerusalem were both awesome and each had its role in the Christmas story.  But the angels gave their message to the shepherds and then returned to Heaven.  The magi did their homage to the Child and then returned home to the East. And old Simeon together with Anna spoke their prophecies and disappeared from the scene…

But Nazareth…Nazareth has never disappeared, but continues to live on in the ordinary everyday lives of Christians like you and me.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Seen, Heard & Touched

Advent Festival Homily, Dec. 20, 2017. 1 John 1:1-4. Topic: Seen, Heard & Touched. This passage from the First Letter of the Apostle, St. John, is one of my favorite writings of the whole New Testament.  It is so full of life and meaning in its very few words. As he wrote these words, St. John was an elderly man, in his 90’s, thinking back to the days when he was a very young man, fixing his nets by the sea when he first encountered Jesus of Nazareth. 

John experienced and witnessed so much in the 3 years he lived with Jesus: water turned to wine, the blind recovering their sight, lepers being made clean, demons screaming as they were driven from the possessed, and even the dead being raised to life! He heard the voice of God from Jesus’ very own lips and touched Him with his own hands; He leaned his head upon the Lord’s chest at the Last Supper. With the others, he abandoned Jesus in the Garden of Olives but repenting, he was the only man to return and stand at the foot of the Cross of his Best Friend.

In this short passage, John is summing up for us his reflections of over 70 years concerning this Best Friend, this Messiah, promised by the prophets for centuries and finally having arrived. And that’s why I especially love this passage at Christmastime.  It reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary in Bethlehem, was a real person, God-in-the-flesh, a God unlike the mythic gods of ancient Greece and Rome who stood aloof and afar from human beings treating them like pawns on the chessboard of life.

The pagan gods laughed at humans in our tragedies. They lived selfish lives in a heaven that was merely the fantasy utopia of gross hedonism.   They thrived on war, thirsted for blood, and lusted for pleasure. They were strict and demanding of their measly human subjects whose lives they were said to hold or crush in the palm of their hands.

Our God, the one True God, broke through the darkness of fear that people had of the gods and became one of us, someone who could be seen and heard and touched. Someone with whom we can form a real relationship. Someone with whom we could share life.

That’s what Jesus’ Christmas title of Emmanuel means: God-with-us, God-among-us, God-like-us, God-as-one-of-us. John reminds us that we never need to face life alone because God has made Himself known, as Brother and Friend, with us to the end, as Emmanuel. 

And so, doesn’t it make such great sense that this great Awesome God chose to first come as a baby and live exactly as we all must live? 
·      Jesus did not HAVE to be born, but he chose to be.
·      Jesus did not HAVE to work for a living as a laborer, but He chose to do so.
·      Jesus did not HAVE to suffer and die, by he chose it.
And so really, we can never shake a fist at God and say “But you don’t understand!”

And so, these opening verses from the First Letter from St. John are really a great Christmas announcement that we are never alone. That’s the tidings of comfort and joy that the angels proclaimed in the hills of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. And John knows it is true:
·      He saw it.
·      He heard it.
·      He touched it.


Advent Festival Homily, Dec. 20, 2017. Mt. 1:18-23. Topic: Jesus -Emmanuel

One of the exciting things surrounding the approaching birth of a child is the choice of a name.   A name is something special, nothing to be selected randomly as it is so much more than simply a tag for identification. No one takes the naming of a child as an insignificant task. The same was true of Jesus and the choosing of his name. We learn from the gospel that God, selected Jesus’ name and revealed it to his adopted father, St. Joseph. His name will be called JESUS. Yeshua in his native language and that's how Mary & Joseph called him (it’s Joshua in modern English). We Christians have preserved the Latin form of his name as Jesus in order to distinguish him from all others called Joshua. But in any case and in every language the name means SAVIOR because that was and still is that holy child's mission on planet Earth.

But the  gospel also gives us what we might call Jesus' nickname, as so many of us also receive from our family or friends. A nickname typically expresses some trait or characteristic that really stands out in a person, doesn't it? Jesus' nickname was EMMANUEL which means, "God is with us". And when we put the two names together - Jesus and Emmanuel - we get the full picture of who and what He is all about. He is our Savior precisely because he is God-with-us.

Salvation, which means real freedom from the destructiveness, desolation, mediocrity and isolation of our selfishness and sins, requires that we reach out to him. Salvation is a partnership, a two way street, which respects our free will. Jesus, God-with-us, never violates our freedom because the decision to reach out to him as Savior is an act of love, and love demands free choice.

So of course the BIG question is: how? How do I enter into this personal bond with Jesus as Savior and come to know Him as Emmanuel,  God-with-us?  I think we can do so in three very basic steps.

First, we must know him and this starts by learning about him. Pope Francis repeats to us over and over again that it is extremely necessary for us to encounter  Jesus in the gospels daily. An easy way to do this to take the readings from daily Mass and reflect on them each day.

Second, if we want Jesus-Emmanuel as a friend and companion in life then we must treat him as one. What would happen if we decided to never call or text a friend; to never go out to a dinner or a sports event with them? The friendship would go nowhere fast, right? It would wither and die.  We need to spend time with Jesus in quiet and conversation. We call this prayer. Prayer is simply speaking with him heart to heart, it need not be complicated or formal. Talk with Jesus about your day, your fears, your hopes and dreams.

Thirdly and finally, nothing can take the place of our personal regular presence at Sunday Mass because it is at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist that we really meet Jesus up close and personal. It is at the Eucharist that Jesus-Savior, Enmanuel God-with-us, makes himself really and truly and personally present to YOU and to ME. He comes as the heavenly flood for our spiritual hunger and makes his dwelling within us.